Georgian Bay Water Levels Trending Downward
By Jack Ellis

The Georgian Bay Association (GBA), representing 20 member associations and about 4,200 families on the eastern and northern shores of Georgian Bay and adjacent waters, has met with success in their three-year study and lobbying effort to convince the relevant authorities that the recent disastrously low lake levels are largely man-made – and that there can be a man-made remedy.
On July 16th their Vice-President concerned with environmental issues, Mary Muter, gave an informative presentation of their efforts to a capacity audience at the Wyebridge Community Centre, hosted by the Federation of Tiny Township Shoreline Associations.

The Baird Report
The GBA commissioned a study by the respected consulting firm W.F. Baird Associates Coastal Engineers Ltd. to investigate the causes of the extremely low water levels on Georgian Bay during the past few years. Baird’s Report is titled Regime Change (Man Made Intervention) and Ongoing Erosion in the St. Clair River and Impacts on Lake Michigan-Huron Lake Levels, with addenda, January 2005. It is available on the GBA website, as a pdf file (10 Mb).

The study examined trends in the levels of Lake Huron/Michigan relative to the other Great Lakes since 1860. It investigated the myriad influences on our lake levels: the Chicago diversion, Lake Superior watershed diversions, the Sault Ste. Marie control structures, rainfall, evaporation, hydrological cycles, glacial rebound, global warming and - a hitherto unacknowledged culprit – major erosion in the St. Clair River outlet of Lake Huron.

In the early 1960s the St. Clair River navigation channel was dredged to a depth of 27 feet in conjunction with the completion of the St. Lawrence Seaway. The International Joint Commission (IJC), representing Canada and the U.S.A with the best scientific knowledge, estimated that this would cause Lake Huron levels to drop about 15 cm (6”) and then stay constant.

However, Baird showed that the trend line of Lake Huron/Michigan water levels from the 1960s to 2003 actually showed a drop of about 50 cm (18”). Erosion in the St. Clair River alone accounted for almost half of this drop, at 23 cm.

The above Figure 1.1 from the Baird Report shows the actual fluctuations of the difference in levels between Lake Huron and Lake Erie back to 1860, marked with the key events on the St. Clair River. It also shows both the changes the IJC expected after the Seaway dredging and the actual long-term trend line.

The second Figure 1.2, on page 10, shows the change in the level difference that the Baird Report attributes solely to the erosion factor.

This drastic change in the long-term trend line was masked from scientific (and political) observation because various unusually high water cycles coincided to give us lots of water during the years from 1970 to 1998.

One key finding of the study was that Lake Huron/Michigan – alone among all of the Great lakes – has had a steadily declining trend in its water levels. Lakes Superior, Erie and St. Clair are rising, and Lake Ontario – tightly controlled by the St. Lawrence Seaway structures - is steady in its long-term trend level.

Most importantly, it found that the St. Clair River had eroded substantially from its 1970s depth. Almost double the original depth was measured in some places near the Blue Water Bridge at Sarnia! The sources of sand that wash down into the St. Clair River were found to be seriously depleted, leading to an inability to maintain a constant channel depth.

The increased water flow feeds on itself, scouring sections of the river ever deeper and increasing the outflow from Lake Huron/Michigan far beyond what had been predicted. Baird puts this loss at 845 million gallons per day.
So now we know: much of our low lake levels are due to the extra loss of water because unchecked erosion is causing away more water than expected to flow down the drain!

Bringing the Baird Findings to the IJC and Politicians
Just finding the facts is not enough – they must be translated into action. For the Great Lakes, the IJC advises the U.S. and Canadian governments on what should be done. They base their advice on technical expertise drawn from a host of relevant agencies in both countries, vetted by their own experts.

At the time of the Baird study, the IJC already was developing an Upper Great Lakes Study Plan to look at the upper lakes in general. They were not aware that the St. Clair River erosion problem was as serious as Baird found it to be.
In late 2004 and early 2005, the GBA mounted a multi-level lobbying effort to present the technically impressive Baird Report to the IJC and the various agencies it listens to. They were so successful in their efforts that the IJC sent representatives – including its U.S. chairperson – to a special meeting convened by GBA in Burlington and attended by experts from all the relevant Canadian and U.S. agencies.

At the conclusion of that meeting, IJC Chair Dennis Schornack wrapped up by saying that there is no doubt that the Lake Huron outflow is a serious problem and urged both governments to find a solution.

On May 11th, the IJC formally approved an expansion of their Upper Great Lakes Study Plan to include St. Clair River erosion.

Such action in response to efforts of a non-governmental organization is extremely rare, but it does not end there. The GBA recognized that the IJC needs funding from both governments to actually do anything.

The GBA then concentrated on building support at the political level. In Washington, they were introduced to Senators and Representatives by some of their own American members. On July 13th, the House passed a resolution to fund the expanded study.

In Canada, the situation is complicated by our minority federal government. The GBA has approached MPs and cabinet ministers, obtaining support from seven ministers so far. The Canadian government has committed $3 million in funding, but this must be moved from Environment Canada’s budget to Foreign Affairs, who then send it to the IJC/Canadian Section.

GBA are monitoring to see that there is no “slip between the cup and the lip”, but continuing pressure on our federal government is very necessary.

In August, the IJC released a draft of the revised Upper Lakes Study Plan for public review and comment. Four public meetings – two in Canada, two in the U.S. – were held between September 1st and 15th to receive comment on the 119-page document. It can be downloaded from here as a 1 Mb PDF file. This webpage also links to an email comment form.

The study budget is $16.68 million Canadian, to be spent over five years. The study component on the St. Clair River is by far the largest single component, and is scheduled for completion ahead of all the other components.

Clearly, the IJC team got the Georgian Bay message loud and clear!

Future Events and How You Can Help

You can keep abreast of further developments by checking the IJC website,

You can contact Canadian politicians to express concern for the continuing low water levels in Georgian Bay, to support the study, and urge action to fund it. Some key actors are:

Hon. Stephane Dion, Minister of Environment (, 613-996-5789)
Hon. Pierre Pettigrew, Minister of Foreign Affairs (, 613-995-8872)
Paul DeVillers, MP Simcoe North, Parliamentary Secretary to the PM ( 705-527-7654)

Maybe someone also should lobby the NDP, since the Liberals seem quite willing to listen to their suggestions on federal spending.

You can help the GBA directly with funding for the Baird study. It cost $240,000 but they are still short of fund-raising this amount. The most tax-effective way is to contribute to the GBA Foundation, which can be done by Visa or MasterCard. Details of how to do this are on the GBA website,

In any case, the Federation sends its heartiest congratulations to the GBA for an exemplary effort to save Georgian Bay, which we all share!